By: Katie Defoe-Raymond, MS, RDN, CSG, LDN
In the past year, after seeing eggs reach a high of almost $8 a dozen, a shortage of turkey at Thanksgiving, and ground beef over $6 a pound, increasing prices and issues with availability have some people confused about how to afford groceries while paying other bills like fuel, housing and medical expenses. The ability to provide balanced meals may feel like it is slipping away. The WestMass ElderCare Nutrition Department has therefore teamed up to share ways to cut costs to help you stretch your dollar while eating well. But first, a little background information:
From December 2021 to December 2022, Consumer Price Index (CPI) for at home food increased by 11.8%, including 59.9% for eggs and 12.2% for poultry, 2% average increase in all meat, 8.4% increase in fruit and vegetables, and 16.1% of cereals and bakery products. The CPI for food is a measurement by the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracking the average change over time of the retail prices of food items paid by urban consumers.
WestMass ElderCare Nutrition Case Manager Jesse Abreu notes that he sees some of his consumers struggling with the elevated prices. “My client told me today that eggs have become a luxury breakfast item. He now waits until he has a craving for eggs before purchasing eggs or boiling an egg for breakfast on any given day.” He continues, “A few of my consumers’ SNAP benefits have dropped to $23. Three for 23…bread, milk, eggs.”
Mary Wetzel, Nutrition Intake Coordinator agrees. “While I was grocery shopping the other day, I saw a father with his young daughter. The daughter asked if the few items he was carrying was all they were getting. He couldn’t look at her when he said that they had no money to buy anything else. So the short of it: using the same amount of money as last year, half the goods can be purchased these days. Everyone is struggling, especially older adults and persons with disabilities managing medical conditions and other rising costs.”
You have probably heard the term “inflation” many times over the past two years as food prices have increased. Inflation is the rise in prices of goods and services over a period of time. Many factors impact food prices:
- Disease that disrupts crops, livestock, or staff
- Environmental factors that affect crops, including severe weather like draught
- Gas prices
- Issues with the food supply/supply chain. Missing one ingredient may delay production, and a shortage of one required ingredient may drive up food costs. For example, recently the Avian flu caused supply issues with chicken and resulted in higher chicken and egg prices.
- Labor supply. Shortage in staff may delay production.
- Political unrest or changes in other countries that impact importing or exporting: ex. Ukraine and Russia are exporters of food from the U.S.
Other Common Reasons Households May Be Struggling with Food Costs:
- COVID SNAP Benefits ending: Households receiving SNAP benefits may notice a significant decrease in benefits due to extra funding from COVID SNAP ending on March 2, 2023.
- High fuel costs
Tips from WestMass ElderCare’s Nutrition Team for Eating Well on a Budget:
- Plan ahead:
- Meal planning: Plan meals for the week that include leftovers to avoid food waste. For example, use rotisserie chicken one night in a soup, then on a salad, in a quesadilla, and in a casserole or on a sandwich.
- Bring a grocery list: Create a grocery list based on the ingredients in your pantry, meals you plan for the week, and after considering on sale items.
- Look for sales/coupons but make sure to only purchase what you will use.
- Avoid shopping hungry. Have a meal or snack before to avoid impulse buys from hunger.
- Compare unit prices to help choose the lowest price per unit (ex. pounds, ounces). The unit price is often listed on the store’s shelving below the item.
3. Buy in bulk: Unit prices also show if buying in bulk results in overall savings. If purchasing in bulk, consider dividing up the product into smaller portions and freezing when you get home. If an item in bulk is significantly cheaper, consider coming up with a plan for how to use it.
WestMass ElderCare Nutrition Operations Manager and former chef Christopher Smith suggests batch cooking after buying in bulk. For example, “if eggs are on sale, plan to make egg cups and freeze in individual portions. If beef is on sale, make and freeze meatballs.”
4. Use leftovers: As mentioned above, using leftovers is a great way to stretch your dollar by preventing waste. Smith suggests getting the most out of smaller amounts of leftover meats by adding on pizza, to casseroles, soup, or in a breakfast casserole.
5. Experiment with new recipes: Go to your local library or look for recipes online for fun, low cost recipe ideas.
6. Try new markets: mobile markets, farmers markets, or explore new stores to compare prices.
7. Consider generic brands for a similar product with a lower price tag.
8. Save on produce:
- At the Grocery Store:
- Buy in season
- Compare prices of fresh and frozen items
- Try an online alternative like Misfits Market for produce delivery at reduced prices
- In the Fall/Summer:
- Consider growing your own produce. If not enough space for a garden, grow items like tomatoes, herbs, or peppers in pots. Also consider using a plot from a community garden.
- Dehydrate, freeze, or can produce over the summer to use throughout the year.
- Purchase a share in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for seasonal weekly produce. Some CSAs accept SNAP and may deliver.
- Check out options like mobile markets, farmers markets, or farm stands
- At the Grocery Store:
Compare fresh and frozen to find the best price. Frozen produce without added sauce is nutritionally very similar to fresh produce, but is a great option because it will last longer, is sometimes lower cost, and usually requires minimal or no food preparation.
Choose “No Salt Added” or “Low Sodium” options or rinse before using to reduce sodium content.
9. Save on protein:
Smith suggests switching to cheaper cuts of meat and buying in bulk. “I have switched from buying individual steaks to buying more of a bulk-producing cut of meat like the eye round, pork shoulder, baby back ribs.” He suggests freezing leftovers as individual meals, labeling with a date, and rotating frozen meals in the freezer to allow for variety.
- Plant-based Protein:
Because plant-based proteins may cost less than meat-based alternatives, try a weekly “meat-free” meal by adding beans (lentils, black beans, kidney beans, etc.) to a vegetable soup, salad, rice, or adding beans and cheese to rice and vegetables in a quesadilla. Add nuts or seeds to yogurt or oatmeal to increase protein content as a breakfast or snack option.
- Use a Combination of Protein Types:
Stretch a high cost protein like beef by using less and combining with a lower cost protein like dried beans, tofu, or a meat that is on sale. For example, add chicken or beef to a casserole, soup/stew, stir fry with tofu, salad with beans, or homemade pizza. WestMass ElderCare’s Nutrition Site & Office Coordinator Maricelis Lopez suggests making a Latino-inspired meal by rinsing canned pink or pinto beans, then combining with cubed ham, black pepper, Adobo, Sazon, Sofrito, Recaito, water, and vegetables like cubed potato or Calabaza.
Recipe: Leftover Rotisserie Chicken Noodle Soup (3 Servings)(162 calories, 6 g fat, 12 g carb, 13 g protein)
- 1/2 tablespoon butter
- ¼ cup chopped onion
- ¼ cup chopped celery
- 2 cans (14.5 oz each) of chicken broth and ½ can of vegetable broth (or instead use vegetable or chicken broth). Choose reduced sodium or make your own stock.
- ¾ cup egg noodles (may also substitute with barley or brown rice)
- ¼ pound leftover rotisserie chicken or leftover cooked chicken breast
- ½ cup sliced carrots
- ¼ teaspoon dried basil
- ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
- Ground black pepper and salt to taste
- Melt butter in a larger pot (medium heat). Add onion and celery, cook about 5 minutes until just tender.
- Add remaining ingredients except noodles. Bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add egg noodles and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes until noodles are cooked to desired texture.
Leftovers: store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. If freezing, make without noodles and freeze, then prior to eating add cooked noodles. Freeze leftovers in individual portions in freezer bags or containers for up to 6 months.
Recipe adapted from: https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/26460/quick-and-easy-chicken-noodle-soup/
Additional Resources That May Help:
- SNAP: for assistance filling out the application, contact your local Council on Aging or DTA (Mass.gov/ContactDTA or call 877-382-2363). For people that have medical costs more than $35 per month that are 60 or older or that have a disability, if your housing costs have increased, or if having child or disabled adult care costs, notifying DTA may help increase normal SNAP benefits.
- Massachusetts Healthy Incentives Program (HIP): if receiving SNAP benefits, then buying healthy, local fruits and vegetables from HIP farm vendors will automatically put money back on your EBT card as long as you have a card balance. The monthly cap is $40 (or more if more than 2 people in the home). For more information on HIP benefits, go to https://www.mass.gov/service-details/massachusetts-healthy-incentives-program-hip. Visit DTAFinder.com to find a local HIP vendor. You may also consider signing up for the CSA Pilot Program, which will allow for HIP produce delivery ($10 delivery fee) through https://shop.massfooddelivery.com/Index or 413-397-3654.
- Farmer’s Market Coupon Program: starting in July. Benefits are increasing to $50 this year per eligible person. Contact your local Council on Aging for details.
- The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts: call to learn about more resources, including Mobile Food Bank, Brown Bag, etc. (413-247-9738)
- Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline: for information on community food resources, call 1-800-645-8333 (TTY: 800-377-1292).
- Fuel Assistance: Toapply.org/MassLIHEAP or call 800-632-8175
- WestMass ElderCare’s Meals on Wheels Program: to learn more about low cost and nutritious meals through the home delivered meal program, Community Table program, or Latino Restaurant Elder Dining Service program at Taino Restaurant, or for additional services including money management support
- 413Cares.org: to find local services like housing, food, health care, job training
“Food Price Outlook.” USDA Economic Research Service – Food Price Outlook, 25 Jan. 2023, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-price-outlook/food-price-outlook/#Consumer%20Price%20Index. Accessed 14 Feb. 2023.
“Quick and Easy Chicken Noodle Soup.” Allrecipes. 27 Jan. 2023. https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/26460/quick-and-easy-chicken-noodle-soup/. Accessed 16 Feb. 2023.